Derelict Vail Court continues to frustrate, ownership at stake in sluggish court case

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A boarded-up Vail Court is seen in this image from “Postmarked,” an art project by a student at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. (Photo: Denise Cheng)
A boarded-up Vail Court is seen in this image from “Postmarked,” an art project by a student at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. (Photo: Denise Cheng)

It’s been seven months since a threat of seizure for the public good was made for the decrepit Vail Court, near Central Square, but nothing has changed – so a city councillor has made the threat again.

The 24-unit apartment complex has been largely boarded up for about a decade, maddening officials and developers who think there’s a better use for the 0.65-acre property – at 139 Bishop Allen Drive, only a block from Massachusetts Avenue and the heart of Central Square – than as potentially illegal parking lot and prize in a slow-moving court case.

On Monday, vice mayor Dennis Benzan asked for word back from the city manager on what’s happened with Vail Court and that threat of eminent-domain land seizing since councillor E. Denise Simmons made it in a May 19 policy order.

Litigation and land takings

Based on councillor Nadeem Mazen’s conversations with owners, though, a land taking isn’t an option now.

“The whole thing is a moot point as far as I understand. The city can’t do a taking – the owners are still in litigation and we literally wouldn’t know whom to take from,” Mazen said Tuesday.

“Once an owner emerges from litigation with deed in hand, they will develop, whichever side wins,” he said.

That won’t be soon. John Maciolek, a Worcester lawyer representing the owners against Abeer Inc., said there might be six more months of pretrial discovery before a possible bid for a court to make a swift finding on its own, called summary judgment. If that fails, there could be a full trial.

“It will definitely take some time to sort out,” Maciolek said. “We don’t really have a timetable.”

Landlords

Owners Six-S Realty Trust consisted of Mohammed Abu-Zahra and his five brothers, although the property was managed by their sister, Samira Jallad. In the owners’ story of Vail Court, the property was slated in 2005 to go condo, and the trust was allowing the units to empty out in then anticipation of tear-down and reconstruction. But the plans, greeted warmly by the Planning Board, were never put into place, and over the next few years the space continued to be used mainly as a parking lot. In 2009 the License Commission drew Jallad into a series of hearings over whether the parking use was allowed by city law.

Local property owner Patrick Barrett, who said he once offered several million for the property only to see a sale announced for a lesser $4 million before failing, gives a different take on Six-S Realty Trust’s ownership and Jallad’s management. “They did not empty these places to prepare for any development, they vacated them because they were so poorly managed the building farthest from Bishop Allen had to be shut down,” Barrett has said. “No reasonable effort has been made to make the property safe or clean up the graffiti. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with them managing another parcel on this site, as they surely have nothing but contempt for Cambridge and their abutters.”

On Monday, Barrett called eminent domain “a heavy, heavy stick” that even at Vail Court “might be a little aggressive.”

Still, he called the project dilapidated as a result of having “probably the worst landlord in Central Square,” and said there were property owners in the square, including him, “who would like to see more interaction with the council and from the city relative to issues of graffiti and cleanliness. We all do our part, but there’s no mechanism to deal with those who do not.”

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2 Responses to "Derelict Vail Court continues to frustrate, ownership at stake in sluggish court case"

  1. Mark Jaquith   Wednesday, January 7, 2015 at 9:45 am

    Litigation is no barrier to eminent domain taking. The government entity simply has to notify all parties with and interest in the subject property. The parties would then be fighting over the proceeds of the taking – which is really a forced sale requiring “just compensation”.

    I think the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority would be better suited to do this than the City, if it does happen. It seems to be a classic (and actual) “blighted property”.

  2. bill cunningham   Wednesday, January 7, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    This place has actually been practically vacant for not just one decade, but almost two— almost twenty years. When rent control ended in 1995, the landlord immediately began aggressively pushing to empty out Vail Court. One of the last tenants called me one night saying she had come home to find a dead rat placed on her kitchen table.
    For several years a single apartment in the doorway nearest Bishop Allen appeared to be occupied, but mail would pile up so probably no one was really living there.
    I understand that the owner or owners have tried unsuccessfully to get a zoning variance to allow the site to be intensively redeveloped. Maybe they hoped that abutters would support a zoning change as an evil lesser than having a dangerously deteriorating building for a neighbor.
    Under rent control, it had became illegal to keep an apartment building vacant for more than nine months without good cause. Abandonment in hope of a zoning bonanza would not be considered good cause. There would not have been any need for eminent domain. The threat of prosecution and fines would have quickly inclined the landlord to relinquish ownership to a more responsible landlord.

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